INDIANAPOLIS — As Larry Bird stood to exit the room, he offered this cryptic farewell: “See you in the next lifetime.”
Just when that will be, and what form it will take, remains to be seen. But the end of Bird’s successful term as president of the Indiana Pacers became official in a press conference Wednesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Donnie Walsh, the man Bird succeeded as team president, will end a brief hiatus and return to that role. Kevin Pritchard, hired by Bird last year as player personnel director, will fill the general manager vacancy created by David Morway’s resignation Tuesday.
“When Larry was really sure of leaving and I knew Donnie was here, I needed that kind of comfort level,” said owner Herb Simon. “I think we have a great team. With him and Kevin, it’s tough to replace Larry but I think we’ve got a good chance to almost replace him.”
Citing health issues and the sense that the timing was right, Bird said he planned to take a year off before re-evaluating his future. In addition to the lingering pain from the back problems that required surgery and forced his premature retirement as a player, Bird said shoulder surgery that could require extensive rehabilitation time also is looming.
He admitted he was on the verge of stepping down last year but was talked out of it by Simon.
“I don’t think this should be a surprise because last year I was going to walk out because I knew the franchise was heading in the right direction and I felt whoever came in had a great opportunity to take it to the next level right off the bat,” he said. “Me and Herbie’s been talking about this really for a couple of years but with the health issues, my shoulder, I just think it’s time.
“Sometimes it’s just time to go and I think this is the right time. I’m very thrilled these two gentlemen are going to be taking over. They’ll do a fantastic job and will move this Pacer team forward.”
Bird will remain with the Pacers through the NBA Draft on Thursday and also will attend the Orlando Pro Summer League next month.
Walsh authored the most successful run in franchise history, turning the Pacers from a laughingstock to a contender almost immediately. Indiana had reached the postseason once in its first 10 NBA seasons but did so 17 times under Walsh. From 1993-2006, the Pacers were in the playoffs every year except one, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals six times and the NBA Finals in 2000.
When it appeared the Pacers were on the verge of championship contention once again in 2005, the infamous brawl in The Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich., proved to be the beginning of the end for Walsh, who left in 2008 to assume leadership of the New York Knicks.
Pritchard enjoyed a successful run with Portland, helping rehabilitate a troubled team that had become known as the “Jail Blazers” while serving in the front office from 2003-10, the final three seasons as general manager.
“You’ve got to make sure the culture of the team is good,” Walsh said. “I’m not throwing the players or anybody else under the bus but you’ve got to. You go back to my early days and middle days up to when all that happened, we always had teams like that. I always stood for it but we could’ve gotten a little lax at some point. …
“We’ll be looking out there for the kinds of players who fit in with this team. We’re not looking just for names but for somebody that fits in with this team.”
Both Walsh and Pritchard said the top priority is re-signing free agents Roy Hibbert and George Hill. Hibbert made his first All-Star appearance in 2011-12 while Hill finished the season as the starting point guard. The Pacers plan to issue qualifying offers to both players, who will become restricted free agents on July 1.
“You can’t lose those guys,” Pritchard said. “They’re too important — both of them. We’re going to do everything we can and Herb has given the green light to keep them. So that’s number one. The draft is important and the ancillary pieces will be important but it’s like 1-A, 1-B and then 10. So that’s where our focus has been.”
Walsh said he hoped Bird would one day return to the franchise and plans to continue to use him as a resource.
“I want him back and I’m not going to let him just go down to Florida and play golf,” Walsh said. “That’s not going to happen.”
So what does the future hold for Bird?
Asked if he would reconsider his former goal of team ownership, Bird deadpanned, “It’s according to how much Herbie leaves me in the will.”
After the laughter subsided, he said that no longer was a priority.
“Whatever I do, I need a year off and I’ll re-evaluate after that,” Bird said. “But you never know if you’re going to come back. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I need a year off to refresh and get healthy and go from there.”
First comes rest, relaxation and recuperation. Only after that will Bird address his next basketball incarnation.